The Island President captures history in the making
Jon Shenk has been inadvertently swept into a huge historical moment. There’s certainly no way he could have anticipated the events that would ensue mere weeks before his film, The Island President, was scheduled to make its way around North American theatres (Vancouver audiences can get a preview when it comes to the the Shadbolt Centre for the Arts on Monday, March 12, courtesy of DOXA.)
Even without its unanticipated, real-life epilogue—which we’ll get to in a moment— Shenk already had a super-timely documentary subject when he went to the Maldives in 2008 for an inside look at the government of Mohamed Nasheed. A charismatic dissident who endured years of imprisonment and torture, Nasheed had recently become the Maldives’ first democratically elected president after three decades of rule by the dictator Maumoon Abdul Gayoom. Shenk describes Nasheed as “Gandhian.”
“Nasheed is a guy who has spent his whole life fighting for democracy,” he says, calling from San Francisco. “He literally sits down in the streets, refuses to use violence, but has put pressure on his corrupt leadership to try to bring democracy to the country so that his children and the people there can live a better life.”
Among the new president’s reforms was an ambitious plan to make the tiny nation completely carbon neutral within 10 years. It’s a symbolic goal to some extent, since the Maldives—comprised of 1200 low-lying coral islands sitting in the Indian Ocean—faces the immediate and almost unthinkable threat of obliteration by rising sea levels, quite possibly within 50 years. The Maldives is literally sinking, right now, right before our eyes. Shenk’s camera follows Nasheed and his cabinet to the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Change Summit where he pleads, cajoles, and presses for a dramatic reduction in emissions.
So far, so fascinating. Notwithstanding the natural charm exuded by Nasheed and the immediacy of the subject, Shenk’s film is sleek and clever, with water seeming to either subtly encroach or loudly crash into almost every frame. Older film nerds will be reminded of Peter Weir’s apocalyptic creep-fest The Last Wave
“If you’re doing your job, you have to respond to what you see,” says Shenk. “And the fascinating thing about the Maldives is that the first time you see it, it’s almost like a PSA for itself. You’re, like, ‘Oh, that’s certainly in the top few most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life.’ And the second thought is, ‘Oh my God, it’s so vulnerable. It’s so fragile. It’s almost like an accident that it’s there at all.’ I had to figure out a way to show that.”
When the action switches to Copenhagen, long and speedy tracking shots capture the urgency of Nasheed’s mission as he barrels down long hallways to tangle with intransigent representatives from India and China. Shenk eagerly admits that he shaped The Island President to reflect the high drama of Nasheed’s situation. “One of the conceptions was that it should feel like a thriller,” he says. “These are educated people, who are sophisticated, who are playing this international game of chess, you know? I wanted to give this sense that you were in this Graham Greene-like thriller.”
Acknowledging that the very subject of climate change can plunge an audience into a paralyzing kind of fatigue, Shenk was determined to make a film that “wasn’t a science report,” and thus The Island President ended up taking the People’s Choice Award for Best Documentary at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival. Then, as the filmmaker and his partners were gearing up for the film’s distribution, the hammer suddenly dropped. On February 7, Nasheed resigned—theoretically.
“It was a coup,” states Shenk. “It definitely was a takeover of power by men with guns. There’s a government in power right now that was not elected that consists almost wholly of ministers and heads of departments that were formerly in power under the dictator. It’s certainly not democratic.”
Nasheed’s government was always fragile, with a judiciary that had been awarded lifetime positions by Gayoom, and a vice president, Mohammed Waheed Hassan, who Nasheed believes was plotting against him from the beginning. Significantly, Waheed is now president.
With Nasheed’s energy policy symbolizing an obvious affront to global power structures, it’s tempting to wonder if there are also larger international forces behind the coup. For his part, Shenk says he sees “absolutely no evidence” for that.
“I know both China and India like to think of the Maldives as their friend,” he offers, “and those are two huge world superpowers with a lot of tourists and shipping going through the Maldives, so I’m not sure. My hunch is that there may be some of that but this has more to do with internal politics. I think for many, many years there have been a small group of people who have benefited from having Gayoom in power.”
In contrast, Shenk is on solid ground when it comes to the western media and its view of the situation. “I think that there’s been some excellent reporting on this, but I think there’s also been some really shoddy stuff,” he states, arguing that journalists are too prone to taking refuge behind the doctrine of fair-and-balanced.
“You have these people who have been put back into power who so clearly are tied to business interests and financial gain,” continues Shenk. “The reporting has been taking at face value some of the things that Waheed and his new government are saying, and balancing that against what they call the supposed coup, or what Nasheed claims to be a coup, or whatever words they use, and I just find it frustrating… I feel that part of our jobs as journalists is to really recognize the difference between right and wrong, and really make the hard calls.”
Shenk wanted to get the former president out of the country for a promotional tour, but a travel ban scuppered that idea—which, ironically, put the lie to the new government’s claim that it wasn't dangling an arrest warrant over Nasheed's head. In a recent conversation with the director from his home in the capital city of Malé, where he reportedly lives “fairly freely,” Nasheed made the characteristically positive observation that in this and countless other ways, the beast has revealed itself, which might be its undoing. In the meantime, The Island President has developed into a vital document of a short but extraordinary moment in a country that some have called “a modern Atlantis.”
“One of the things I’m proud of about the film is that it’s almost undeniable,” says Shenk. “You can’t make a piece of propaganda to be likeThe Island President. It’s too authentic. The scenes are too real. You can’t make that shit up. So once you’ve seen that, it’s a much easier call. ‘Wait a minute, this guy is kind of a one in a million character.’”